But such is the efficacy of this symbolic Gandhi that the film, for all its simplification and Hollywoodizations, had a powerful and positive effect on many contemporary freedom struggles. South African anti-apartheid campaigners and democratic voices all over South America have enthused to me about the film’s galvanizing effects. This posthumous, exalted “International Gandhi” has apparently become a totem of real inspirational force.
The trouble with the idealized Mahatma Gandhi is that he’s darned so dull, little more than a dispenser of homilies and nostrums (“An eye for an eye will make the whole world go blind”) with just the odd flash of wit (asked what he thought of Western civilization, he gave the celebrated reply, “I think it would be a great idea”). The real man, if it is still possible to use such a term after the generations of hagiography and reinvention, was infinitely more interesting, one of the most complex and contradictory personalities of the century. His full name – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, was memorably – and literallt – translated into English by the novelist G. V. Desani as “Action – Slave Fascination – Moon Grocer”, and he was rich and devious a figure as that glorious name suggests.
Entirely unafraid of the British, he was nevertheless afraid of the dark, and always slept with a light burning by his bedside. He believed passionately in the unity of all the peoples of India., yet his failure to keep the Muslim leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah within the Indian National Congress’s fold led to the partition of the country. (For all his vaunted selflessness and modesty, he made no move to object when Jinnah was attacked during a Congress session for calling him “Mr. Gandhi” instead of “Mahatma”, and booed off the stage by the Gandhi’s supporters. Later his withdrawal, under pressure from Jwaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, of a last-ditch offer to Jinnah of the prime ministership itself, ended the last faint chance of avoiding partition.)
He was determined to live his life as an ascetic, but, as the poet Sarojini Naidu joked, it cost the nation a fortune to keep Gandhi living in poverty. His entire philosophy privileged the village way over that of the city, yet he was always financially dependent on the support of industrial billionaires like Birla. His hunger strikes could stop riots and massacres, but he also once went on hunger strike to force one of his capitalist’s employees to break their strike against the harsh conditions of employment.
He sought to improve the conditions of the untouchables, yet in today’s India, these peoples, now calling themselves Dalits and forming and increasingly well-organized with the effective political grouping, have rallied around the memory of their own leader, Bhimarao Ramji Ambedkar, an old rival of Gandhi’s. As Ambedkar’s star has risen among the Dalits, so Gandhi’s stature has been reduced.
The creator of the political philosophies of passive resistance and constructive nonviolence, but spent much of his life far from the political arena, refining his more eccentric theories of vegetarianism, bowel movements, and the beneficial properties of human excrement.
Forever scarred by the knowledge that, as a sixteen-year-old youth, he’d been making love to his wife, Kasturba, at the moment of his father’s death, Gandhi later forswore sexual relations but went on into his old age with what he called his “brahmacharya experiments”, during which naked young man would be asked to lie with all night so that he could prove that he had mastered his physical urges. (He believed that total control over his “vital fluids” would enhance his spiritual powers).
He, and he alone, was responsible for the transformation of the demand for independence into nationwide mass movement that mobilized every class of society against the imperialist, yet the free India that came into being, divided and committed to a program of modernization and industrialization, was not the India of his dreams. His sometime disciple, Nehru, was the arch proponent of modernization, and it was Nehru’s vision, not Gandhi’s that was eventually – and perhaps inevitably – preferred.